Dawn approaches in the sleepy hall of worlds for the first time.
Blood red rays of light pierce the gloomy grey darkness of the ages, spilling through the lone, tiny slit of a window set low. On the pedestal at the center of the great space sits a massive book, grey with soot and dust, as is everything in this cavernous chamber of grey brick and grey stone and grey air.
The light creeps downwards, casting light on what should have been eternity. The stone and the soot and the old tattered pages belie a time before, but that can not be, for neither stone nor tome nor dead, stagnant air can remember such a time.
Finally, the light falls upon the book, bathing it in crimson, and for the first time, something stirs in this place. Not much. But enough. A breath, a movement, a whisper, the barest shift in the nature of things, and for a moment, this chamber gleams, straining to remember its past glory, the many worlds full of worlds full of worlds that it used to hold, its shelves stacked high...
But it is only a flash, and the memory of a memory fades like a ghost.
The great stone door reverberates with a great impact, shattering the calm after an eternity of silence. Dust sinks down from above, casting shadows and twinkles into the newfound light. The sound echoes only for a moment before being tamed by the stillness of the chamber.
So much change today.
The door swings slowly open, heavy stone scraping on heavy stone, riding in a well-worn groove until it stops. There is a moment's indecision before a gentle, cool breeze blows in for the first time, an excitable and unusual intrusion. Dust is lifted into the air wholesale, blown about, dancing and twirling joyously.
There, at the door. A figure. It stands, squinting into the low light, its silhouette barely visible against the familiar blackness.
It calls over its shoulder, a shout in a language like music. The sound echoes back through some unseen corridor, its twin playfully entering the chamber and mingling with the dust motes.
In the short time it takes to quell the shout, the figure has stepped into the chamber. It looks around, brow furrowed, as though trying to solve some puzzle. It bends down, draws a finger along the floor, holds it up to see what it has found.
Soot and dust. All here is soot and dust.
With a puzzled look, the figure approaches the center of the room, each footstep a muffled mockery of the stillness of eternity, and yet each footstep also a purveyor of change and of new life.
The figure reaches the pedestal. It looks down. Hesitates. Leans forward. Blows.
A cloud of dust jumps free, racing into the air to join the sunbeam.
The figure coughs and coughs, eyes pressed shut, waving its hand in front of its face as though to ward off the dust, to no avail.
Finally, the coughing subsides, and the figure looks down at the book, at the title, the words, written in a language so long dead that even the stones can not seem to recall...
With shaking hands, the figure lifts the cover, the spine creaking and crackling in protest. The figure pauses to examine the ash, the burnt edges of the first page.
The first page is blank. Though the brittle, yellowed paper glows a deep red in the light, nothing appears to be printed on its surface between the scorch marks.
The figure turns the page, gently, gingerly, as though afraid the tome of eternity will simply crumble into dust.
The second page is blank as well.
With growing confusion, the figure turns the pages, one after the other. Blank. Blank. Blank. All of them blank.
The figure sighs. Looks around. Looks back at this page. Becomes lost in thought, and eternity once again begins to settle in.
The figure starts, taking notice of the page! Looks more closely, but whatever was there appears to have gone. Whatever movement, whatever glimpse of the sky and the sea had been on the page moments ago is nowhere to be found. Whatever sound of seagulls and ships' bells and the shouts of sailors have disappeared as if they were never there at all.
The figure examines the book again, thoroughly. Perhaps it was imagined. But it had seemed so real.
At length, the figure leans over, trying to find the page with the sea and the sky, but it's no use. The blank pages with the burned edges all look the same. Finally, the figure settles on a page near the middle that seems about right.
The figure stares at the page, willing the images to come back, willing that brief glimpse of... of something... into being.
Time passes. Nothing happens.
The figure sighs. Perhaps it was only an illusion. The figure turns to the door and calls out again, words echoing and dying away. The figure stares absently in the page, finger tracing swirls in the dust of the pedestal. Becomes lost in thought.
There it is again! The movement, the sounds. This time, the figure doesn't stir, doesn't even focus fully on the page, simply observes. The images become more and more real, and it is as though there is an entire world being glimpsed through the page. The distinction between book and chamber and images blurs, until soon the chamber itself is forgotten, and it is as though the world within is all that exists...
Daniel steps off the train and looks around the platform. There are very few people here; most have just gotten off the train, and the rest, from the look of it, are probably homeless, sleeping under the various benches.
At least, he hopes they're only homeless.
He watches for a moment as the train pulls away, its sleek silver cars picking up speed, rocketing off into the overgrown fields. Though the towering cornstalks are still visible above the sea of grasses, it's clear nobody's been tending these fields for quite some time, and the golden-brown stalks of the rolling plains have begun to claim the fields as their own.
Daniel sets his heavy briefcase on the concrete and adjusts his windbreaker against the chilly breeze. It's clear his contact isn't here yet.
He allows his gaze to wander back towards the city. It's been more than a year since he's been out here, and he's shocked at how much more bare the frame of the crashed Super Pool Ship looks. Before, where once the solid, intimidating three-legged spider shape had loomed menacingly over the skyline of what had once been called Kansas City, there are now very obviously chunks missing, and light shows through holes in the structure. Even at this distance, the evidence of the human influence on the huge structure is finally becoming evident. Mere weeks before, the first Leg had been removed, and even now is being studied and then broken down into its components.
The Super Pool Ship has provided the materials to build the wall that keeps them them safe, has provided the resources and the beginnings of the technologies they use every day in what some believe to be the last civilized city on Earth.
He shudders as he remembers, years ago, the beginnings of the open war. He'd never believed in aliens, never believed that a race of slugs could be slowly and methodically infiltrating human society, until he'd seen the president and that "Jake" calling for calm in the wake of the catastrophe. The Yeerks could be beaten, they'd claimed.
But the catastrophe... something had gone wrong in the Yeerks' plan, or in the plan of those 'Animorphs.' Something had gotten out of hand, and shots had been taken. An aircraft carrier had been sunk. A nuclear weapon had been launched, and then the Yeerks had destroyed what was left of LA from orbit. Millions upon millions, gone in an instant.
And that had only been the beginning. The world had been devastated, city after city falling to the Yeerks or being decimated. It wasn't until the widespread use of the oatmeal, until its airborne deployment, that the tide had turned.
Ah, the oatmeal. The very thing that had saved humanity had turned out to be its undoing. Nearly every Yeerk had been forced to take some in one form or another, and it had driven them crazy. The hosts and the humans were no longer separable, nor would it have mattered; all they'd wanted was oatmeal. Society the world over had collapsed as the roving gangs of The Grained, as the news media had taken to calling them, scoured the world in search of the one particular variety of maple and ginger oatmeal. The infrastructure had collapsed, and The Grained had been seen literally tearing buildings apart on the mere suspicion of an oatmeal packet.
The work the Yeerks had started had been finished by Oatmeal.
Eventually the majority of the unaffected survivors had gathered together at the site of the crashed Pool Ship-- they'd renamed the city Oatmealopolis, and had managed to hold off the roving bands of Grainers until the wall had gone up. According to the Mayor, it will be completed in roughly a month, and then they can work on getting the television and communications networks back online.
Traveling outside the wall is risky at best. Aside from the chances of drawing the attention of the secret police, there's always the danger of being ripped apart by Grained.
The only train that still runs exists only as a way for the private military to check on the various settlements, encourage them to move to the city- many still refuse, citing... seemingly unsavory practices by the government and the self-declared mayor.
The Grained, it seems, slowly devolve or deteriorate somehow once they're away from the oatmeal. Their body goes into an energy conservation mode, and their mental state deteriorates until all they can think about is the oatmeal. They don't sleep, they eat only what they need to in order to stay alive, often in the form of raw meat or even old garbage, and their metabolism alters to the point that one can survive for months on a single meal. Their skin becomes clammy and pale, and they lose all capacity for language or any higher cognition.
Their sole purpose for existing seems to be tearing people apart. Any normal human, anyone with regular skin-tone and the look of the living about them, is in danger. The Grained will tear a person limb-from-limb and then check every broken bone and every scattered belonging for even a single flake of Instant Maple and Ginger Oatmeal.
Between the Yeerks, the Oatmeal, and the roving Grained, there is very little left of what humanity once was. Human settlements outside of Oatmealopolis are still in grave danger-- news came in earlier today about a town ripped apart by a mob of Grained. The regular humans out here are often twitchy and violent as well-- with good reason. When a Grained is chasing after you, you tend to shoot first and ask questions later, and the bands of roving thieves don't help matters much.
Add to this the rumors of a growing population of actual Controllers somewhere in China, and the world seems pretty damn well shot, Daniel thinks with a snort.
There. An old-school Jeep bounces down heavily pitted and ill-repaired road that runs in front of the station. That will be his contact.
Daniel lifts his case of oatmeal packets, glances around once more for Grained or potential thieves or secret police, and steps forward, waving his arm at the Jeep.